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Transcript: David DiSalvo on How Cultural Evolution Outpaces Natural Evolution and Old Brain Metaphors

Below you can find the full tran­script of our engag­ing Q&A ses­sion today with David DiS­al­vo, author of What makes your brain hap­py and why you should do the oppo­site, mod­er­at­ed by Alvaro Fer­nan­dez. You vis­it pre­vi­ous Q&A Ses­sions Here.

Full Tran­script (Light­ly edit­ed) of Live Q&A held on Decem­ber 9th, 2–3pm ET

2:00
AlvaroF: Hel­lo every­one! We are hon­ored to have David DiS­al­vo here with us today.

2:01
AlvaroF: For the next hour, he’ll answer as many of your good ques­tions as pos­si­ble.

2:02
AlvaroF: David is a pro­lif­ic blog­ger and sci­ence writer, and has just released a great new book. David, can you tell us why you titled your about in such a thought-pro­vok­ing way?

2:03
AlvaroF: Let me clar­i­fy that this is a chat-only Q&A: there is no audio. Every­one can ask ques­tions by typ­ing and send­ing them, and David will type his answers.

2:07
Com­ment From David DiS­al­vo
Hi every­one, it’s a plea­sure to be online with you. The title of the book cap­tured the main idea that fre­quent­ly our brain leans in direc­tions that are not ull­ti­mate­ly in our best inter­ests.

2:07
AlvaroF: Let me ask the first obvi­ous ques­tion — why is that so?

2:08
David DiS­al­vo: The under­ly­ing rea­son is that our brain didn’t evolve to meet the needs of a com­plex, infor­ma­tion dri­ven cul­ture

2:08
David DiS­al­vo: Cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion has out­paced nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion, and we are in a per­pet­u­al state of “catch up”

2:09
Com­ment From MsJulie
David, what do you make of Kahneman’s new book: Think­ing Fast and Slow? How does his book square with your think­ing — it seems to me you both are think­ing along the same lines. (Great minds, I guess.)

2:10
David DiS­al­vo: I must admit I am not fin­ished with Kahneman’s book just yet, but I love it. His work has been very influ­en­tial for me and, I imag­ine, most writ­ers in this area.

2:10
Com­ment From Guest
Do you think work­ing mem­o­ry con­straints are part of the prob­lem?

2:11
David DiS­al­vo: Work­ing mem­o­ry con­straints are doubt­less part of the issue. Most of the research sug­gests that we can only hold 7 items or con­cepts in work­ing mem­o­ry at on time. That’s often less than what an aver­age office job requires us to main­tain on any giv­en day!

2:12
AlvaroF: Back to your first com­ment: how are the brain demands of today, after cul­tur­al evo­lu­tion, dif­fer­ent from yesterday’s? work­ing mem­o­ry may be a good exam­ple, what are oth­ers?

2:13
David DiS­al­vo: One of the things I focus on in the book is that we have adopt­ed inac­cu­rate metaphors for how the brain works, and this has led us to some odd con­clu­sions, such as the alleged abil­i­ty to “mul­ti task”

2:13
David DiS­al­vo: Truth is, none of us are capa­ble of mul­ti­task­ing in the term’s orig­i­nal sense (doing mul­ti­ple things at one time)

2:14
David DiS­al­vo: At least not at the con­scious lev­el

2:14
AlvaroF: What are bet­ter metaphors than, I guess, computing/ mul­ti­task­ing?

2:15
David DiS­al­vo: But fast paced infor­ma­tion cul­tures demand that we do this thing we call mul­ti­task­ing, though it’s con­trary to how our brains are struc­tured to process infor­ma­tion

2:15
David DiS­al­vo: The com­put­ing metaphor is prob­lem­at­ic because it is essen­tial­ly lin­ear

2:16
AlvaroF: I hope none of you are check­ing email now 🙂

2:16
Com­ment From Elyse
Could you elab­o­rate on sub­con­scious mul­ti-task­ing?

2:17
David DiS­al­vo: Com­put­ers are pro­grammed to accom­plish mul­ti­ple tasks at once, giv­en cer­tain para­me­ters and inputs.

2:17
David DiS­al­vo: Para­me­ters WE define and inputs WE define

2:18
David DiS­al­vo: Truth is, we have very lit­tle idea what those pro­cess­ing para­me­ters are for the brain, if the term “para­me­ters” even applies

2:18
AlvaroF: What’s a bet­ter metaphor?

2:19
AlvaroF: Also, please see Elyse’s ques­tion above on “sub­con­scious mul­ti-task­ing”

2:19
Com­ment From Cathy
A com­put­er is only as good as the pro­gram­mer, etc.

2:19
David DiS­al­vo: I think the best, though still ter­ri­bly inad­e­quate metaphor, would be some­thing more akin to the Inter­net

2:20
David DiS­al­vo: At least with the Net metaphor, you have a sense that pro­cess­ing occurs across bound­aries and infor­ma­tion is inputted anda accessed in a mul­ti­tude of ways (places)

2:20
David DiS­al­vo: To Elyse’s ques­tions…

2:21
David DiS­al­vo: What I meant by con­scious vs suib­con­cious mul­ti­task­ing is that we have pret­ty good research based evi­dence that we process in “default” mode. While we are sleep­ing, for exam­ple, or day­dream­ing.

2:21
AlvaroF: but the Inter­net does not self-reg­u­late/ plan

2:22
Com­ment From Cathy
Why the need for a metaphor? Keep­ing busy with sev­er­al tasks sim­ply means we move quick­ly from one to anoth­er and back until they are done or we’re dis­tract­ed by more. As we age, if brain health is not there, the quick­ness and focus slows lead­ing us to think we can’t “mul­ti­task” any more.

2:23
David DiS­al­vo: Exact­ly — and that’s why it is still not ade­quate, but it’s like­ly a close to a decent metaphor as we can reach.

2:23
Com­ment From MsJulie
Could you speak a lit­tle more about the default mode?

2:24
David DiS­al­vo: Peter Singer at Yale has for many years con­duct­ed research into a neur­al net­work that, more recent­ly, has come to be called the default net­work. It appears to take cen­ter stage in our brain when we are not focused on any giv­en thing(s), but are “drift­ing” so to speak.

2:25
David DiS­al­vo: This drift­ing use to be con­sid­ered point­less, but we now under­stand that our brain is accom­plish­ing quite alot in those spans of time

2:25
Com­ment From MsJulie
I’ve also just read the book on Willpow­er by Baumeis­ter and Tier­ney. Where do you think that willpow­er plays into Kahneman’s slow think­ing notion, and your notion of spend­ing the ener­gy work­ing against what makes the brain hap­py?

2:27
David DiS­al­vo: I have not read Roy Baumeister’s new book (though I saw a cou­ple sting­ing reviews), so I am a bit hand­i­capped to com­ment on it

2:27
David DiS­al­vo: I am not sure if his notion of Willpow­er is con­sis­tent with the con­ven­tial notions

2:28
Com­ment From Cathy
What are your thoughts on pro­grams such as Posit Science’s “Audi­to­ry” and “Insight” as well as Advanced Brain Tech­nolo­gies “The Lis­ten­ing Pro­gram”?

2:30
David DiS­al­vo: I am intrigued by brain stim­u­la­tion pro­grams. I must admit that I have not researched their effec­tive­ness, but at an intu­tive lev­el I think they mer­it inves­ti­ga­tion and exper­i­ment,

2:30
David DiS­al­vo: At least anec­do­tal­ly, there is alot of feed­back that some of them are effec­tive.

2:31
David DiS­al­vo: One thing to men­tion on that top­ic…

2:31
Com­ment From Natal­ie
I have just bought the book thru ama­zon, so I haven’t read your book yet. But what is the main the­sis? Whay are we doing now that is mak­ing us hap­py but is detri­men­tal in the long run? Is this a too lit­er­al ques­tion?

2:33
David DiS­al­vo: …I am not sure any­one can “prove” brain stimulation’s effec­tiv­ness just yet, but that is also true of many many oth­er brain-relat­ed tech­nolo­gies.

2:33
David DiS­al­vo: Answer­ing Natalie’s ques­tion.…

2:35
David DiS­al­vo: The cen­tral the­sis is that our brain’s are pre­dic­tion and pat­tern-detec­tion machines that evolved to sur­vive. As a result, there are mul­ti­ple mis­match­es between our brains’ native ten­den­cies and our cul­tur­al envi­ron­ments.

2:35
David DiS­al­vo: (my typ­ing skills leave much to be desired!)

2:35
Com­ment From MsJulie
Could you also talk a lit­tle more about why aware­ness is so cru­cial to chang­ing behav­ior?

2:36
AlvaroF: Good ques­tion! It seems David is aware of his need to update typ­ing skills…

2:37
David DiS­al­vo: Aware­ness forces us to self exam­ine (per­haps very quick­ly, depend­ing on the sce­nario) — and that places a “wedge” between what we may be first inclined to do, and what we ulti­mate­ly do.

2:38
Com­ment From Cathy
My under­stand­ing of “evolve” is sim­ply adap­ta­tion and not nec­es­sar­i­ly improve­ment.

2:38
David DiS­al­vo: It’s this “wedge” that could, as one exam­ple, pre­vent most road rage inci­dents.

2:39
David DiS­al­vo: “Improve­ment” is a rel­a­tive term. How does one “improve” as a per­son? For you that means one thing, for me prob­a­bly anoth­er (with points of sim­i­lar­i­ty of course). Adap­ta­tion is still the piv­otal term.

2:40
AlvaroF: Can we “evolve” our­selves? if there is a new envi­ron­ment to adapt to, and we have plas­tic brains, why not? do you talk about epi­ge­net­ics and neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty in the book? any tips?

2:40
David DiS­al­vo: But, we can­not expect nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion to jump into hyper­speed for our brains to “adapt” to infor­ma­tion sat­u­rat­ed, con­sumerist soci­eties.

2:41
Com­ment From Cathy
Excel­lent point about improve­ment. Agreed.

2:42
David DiS­al­vo: I talk about neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty quite alot in the book. IMO it’s the most impor­tant dis­cov­ery in brain sci­ence of the last cen­tu­ry.

2:42
David DiS­al­vo: because it under­lies so many oth­er new under­stand­ings.…

2:43
David DiS­al­vo: Before, we worked under the assump­tion that after a brief peri­od in child­hood, our brains became sta­t­ic hunks of tis­sue

2:43
Com­ment From Cathy
I think there have always been mis­match­es between what our brain accepts as viable infor­ma­tion and what it rejects and that would be based on the pre­dic­tion, pat­tern detec­tion you men­tioned. The brain is also plas­tic and change­able and adapt­able so isn’t this rou­tine?

2:43
David DiS­al­vo: …now the sta­t­ic tis­sue mis­un­der­stand­ing has giv­en way to a new are­na of research find­ings

2:44
David DiS­al­vo: Answer­ing Cathy…

2:45
David DiS­al­vo: yes, I agree, those mis­match­es have always been there to vary­ing degrees. My con­tention is that in the infor­ma­tion age they hap­pen with expo­nen­tial fre­quen­cy and we are, all of us, try­ing to keep up

2:45
Com­ment From Cathy
It was under­stood a very very long time ago but went against the “norm” of that time and was swept under the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty car­pet.

2:45
David DiS­al­vo: We are con­stant­ly adapt­ing in the prag­mat­ic sense (not evo­lu­tion­ary sense)

2:47
David DiS­al­vo: I think one of the rea­sons that Ray Kurzweil’s work is com­pelling is because of this expo­nen­tial move­ment

2:47
AlvaroF: What are the impli­ca­tions for edu­ca­tion, train­ing, health­care? how are/ will neu­ro­sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies such as neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty impact those domains?

2:47
David DiS­al­vo: Answer­ing Alvaro.…

2:49
David DiS­al­vo: The impli­ca­tions are already being seen par­tic­u­lar­ly in edu­ca­tion. Under the old mod­el of brain devel­op­ment (the ‘sta­t­ic’ mod­el), it’s hard to imag­ine why we’d think adult edu­ca­tion could do very much for the aver­age per­son

2:49
AlvaroF: We have ten min­utes left — please sub­mit your remain­ing ques­tions.

2:50
Com­ment From MsJulie
Thank you, David, very much for your time, all the best on your book. I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing it. P.S. is your pub­lish­er going to release a ver­sion on the Kin­dle?

2:50
David DiS­al­vo: No one want­ed to admit that, of course, but if your work­ing assump­tion was that the brain was more or less cement­ed after it’s ear­ly prun­ing peri­od, then why expend resource to change that?

2:50
David DiS­al­vo: Thank­ful­ly, we now know that isn’t true.

2:51
David DiS­al­vo: Yes, a Kin­dle and Nook ver­sion should be out very soon.

2:51
David DiS­al­vo: It’s iron­ic that it takes so much time to get an ebook pro­duced.

2:51
AlvaroF: why not at the same time (we have been think­ing options with our own book, we released both at same time)

2:52
David DiS­al­vo: I’m real­ly not sure why. I’m glad­ly leav­ing those details up to the pub­lish­er 🙂

2:53
David DiS­al­vo: More ques­tions?

2:53
AlvaroF: Any main themes from the book we haven’t touched on?

2:54
David DiS­al­vo: Some themes from the book: the imper­fec­tion of mem­o­ry; why we dis­count the future; psy­choso­cial con­ta­gions, the pow­er of metaphor.…

2:54
David DiS­al­vo: .…and many oth­ers 🙂

2:55
AlvaroF: OK, thank you very much for your time, David!

2:55
AlvaroF: We wish you the best with the book and with every­thing else you do

2:56
Com­ment From Elyse
Thanks very much — quite inter­est­ing.

2:56
David DiS­al­vo: Thanks every­one. You can email me at dis­alvowrites at gmail.com

2:57
David DiS­al­vo: twit­ter: @neuronarrative

2:57
AlvaroF: Bye every­one

2:57
AlvaroF: And you can vis­it David’s great web­site, can you remind us of best URL?

2:58
David DiS­al­vo: www.whatmakesyourbrainhappy.com

It has links to both of my blogs at Psych Today and Forbes

2:58
Com­ment From Cathy
Thank you, David. Love the term “prag­mat­ic” adap­ta­tion

2:59
AlvaroF: Have a nice week­end, every­one. The tran­script will be avail­able at sharpbrains.com by end of the day.

Tran­scripts of pre­vi­ous Live Q&As with Book Authors:

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